its beginnings in the late 1940s, the U.S. police procedural genre
has continued to bring together a variety of social issues with
physical action. It is unabashedly a genre of car chases and gun
battles and fistfights, but it is also imbued with values critical
to the fabric of a society: justice, social order, law. More than
any other TV genre, the police program brings into sharp relief
the conflicts between individual freedom and social responsibility
in a democratic society. Although the police are closely related
to the private detective in their pursuit of criminals, they are
ultimately an employee of the state, not a private individual, and
are sworn "to protect and to serve." In theory, this means the police
officer is expected to enforce society's laws and maintain order--unlike
the private eye, who can be more flexible in his/her obedience to
the rule of law. In practice, though, policing figures can also
be disruptive forces--violating the letter of the law in order to
enforce a "higher" moral code. As times change and ideology shifts,
so does the police drama.
1949's Stand By for Crime and Chicagoland Mystery Players
provided television's first police detectives, neither was as
influential as their long-running successor, Dragnet--which
had two separate TV incarnations, from 1952 to 1959 and then from
1967 to 1970. Dragnet defined the genre during the 1950s.
Jack Webb produced and starred as Sgt. Joe Friday, who doggedly
worked his way through official police procedures. Dragnet
drew its stories from California court cases and prided itself on
presenting "just the facts," as Friday frequently reminded witnesses.
Friday was an efficient bureaucrat with a gun and a badge, a proud
maintainer of police procedure and society's rules and regulations.
Producer Webb had such success with this formula that he returned
to the police procedural program in the 1970s with Adam 12.
The police procedural strain dominated the genre during the 1950s,
but its dry presentational style and endorsement of the status quo
and the powers-that-be came under attack in the 1960s. Webb's programs
seemed anachronistic and out of touch with the reality of many viewers
during that turbulent decade. New issues, imagery, and character
types revived the genre in programs such as Ironside and
The Mod Squad.
in contrast to the Webb programs, attempted to pour a liberal politics
into the mold of the police drama. Ironside's team of crime-fighters
cobbled together representatives of society's disenfranchised groups
(women, African-Americans, and the young) under the guidance of
a liberal patriarch, the wheelchair-bound Robert Ironside (Raymond
Burr). Ironside was an outsider who understood the workings of police
procedure, but chose not to function within it. Instead, he formed
an alliance of sharply defined individuals outside the bounds of
the police organization proper. Ironside did not challenge
the status quo, but neither did it fully endorse it.
The Mod Squad, the policing characters were drawn from Hollywood's
vision of 1960s counterculture: "one white, one black, one blond,"
the advertising promised. Although actual members of the counterculture
spurned the program as fake and inaccurate, The Mod Squad illustrated
how policing figures can adopt an anti-social patina, how they can
come to resemble the rebellious and anarchic forces they are supposed
1970s saw a flood of police programs--some 42 premiered during the
decade--and their protagonists became increasingly individualistic
and quirky. They came closer and closer to the alienated position
of the private detective, and moved farther and farther from the
Dragnet-style police procedural. The title figures of McCloud,
Columbo, and Kojak were police detectives marked as much
by personal idiosyncrasies as concerns with proper procedure or
law enforcement effectiveness. McCloud (Dennis Weaver) was
a deputy from New Mexico who brought Western "justice" to the streets
of Manhattan. Columbo (Peter Falk) dressed in a crumpled
raincoat and feigned lethargy as he lured suspects into a false
sense of confidence. And Kojak (Telly Savalas) was as well known
for his bald head and constant lollipop sucking as for problem-solving.
1970s inclination toward offbeat police officers peaked in detectives
that spent so much time undercover--and masqueraded so effectively
as criminals--that the distinction between police and criminals
became less and less clear. Toma (a ratings success even
though it lasted just one season) and Baretta led the way in this
regard, drawing their inspiration from Serpico--a popular
Peter Maas book that eventually evolved into a film and a low-rated
TV series. These unorthodox cops bucked the police rule book and
lived unconventional lives, but, ultimately, they existed on a higher
moral plain than the regular police officer.
genre was also fortified in the 1970s through other strategies:
incorporating a medical discourse (Quincy, M.E.), setting policemen
astride motorcycles (CHiPs--a term, incidentally, which was fabricated
by the program and is not used by the California Highway Patrol),
and casting younger, hipper actors (Starsky and Hutch).
the 1980s, the police drama was a well established genre, possibly
in danger of stagnation from the glut of programs broadcast during
the previous decade. With remarkable resiliency, however, it continued
to evolve through a series of programs that took its basic conventions
and thoroughly reworked them. Hill Street Blues, Cagney and Lacey,
and Miami Vice were very different programs, but each of
them was seen as an iconoclastic, rule-breaking police program.
Police programs have always invoked realism and claimed authenticity,
as was apparent in the genre's archetype, Dragnet, but there
are different forms of realism and Hill Street Blues altered
the understanding of realism that had prevailed. Among its innovations
were documentary film techniques (such as the hand-held camera),
fragmented and disjointed narrative structure (actions kept happening
without conventional motivation and/or explanation), and morally
ambiguous characterizations (mixing good and evil in a single individual).
Hill Street Blues also altered the usually all-white, usually
all-male composition of the police force by including women and
minorities as central figures--a trend which had begun in the 1970s.
and Lacey took the inclusion of women characters and women's
concerns much further than Hill Street Blues or Ironside.
Indeed, it challenged the genre's patriarchal underpinnings in fundamental,
unprecedented ways. There had been women-centered police programs
as early as 1974's Get Christie Love and Police Woman,
but these programs were more concerned with exploiting Teresa Graves's
or Angie Dickenson's sexual desirability than presenting a feminist
agenda. Cagney and Lacey, in contrast, confronted women's
issues that the genre had previously ignored: breast cancer, abortion,
birth control, rape (particularly acquaintance rape), and spousal
Cagney and Lacey disrupted the male-dominated genre is evidenced
by the battles that had to be fought to keep it on the air. In the
most notorious incident, the role of detective Christine Cagney
was recast after the first, low-rated season because, according
to an unnamed CBS executive quoted in TV Guide, "The American
public doesn't respond to the bra burners, the fighters, the women
who insist on calling manhole covers peoplehole covers. . . . We
perceived them [actors Tyne Daley and Meg Foster] as dykes." Consequently,
a more conventionally feminine actor (Sharon Gless) assumed the
Cagney role. (This was actually the third actor to play the part;
Loretta Swit was Cagney in the made-for-TV movie version.) Despite
this ideological backpedaling, Cagney and Lacey went on to
establish itself as one of the most progressively feminist programs
third 1980s police program to unsettle the conventions of the genre
was Miami Vice. This immensely popular show featured undercover
cops who were so far "under" that they were almost indistinguishable
from the criminals--quite a far cry from Sgt. Friday. In Miami Vice,
good and evil folded back over one another in impenetrable layers
of disguise and duplicity. James "Sonny" Crockett (Don Johnson)
and Ricardo "Rico" Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas)usually found their
way out of the urban jungle they patrolled, but not always. In one
season, Crockett was stricken with amnesia and actually believed
himself to be a hoodlum. In any event, Crockett and Tubbs frequently
ran across corrupt public officials. The clearly demarcated moral
universe of Dragnet had become hopelessly ambiguous.
moral ambiguity was not entirely new to the genre. This territory
was frequently traveled by previous programs such as Baretta.
What was truly innovative in Miami Vice was the style of
its sound and image--rather than its themes. Miami Vice borrowed
its imagery from the film noir: high contrast, imbalanced lighting,
dissymmetrical compositions, extreme low and high camera angles,
foreground obstructions, black-and-white set design, and so on.
These images were often edited together into elusive, allusive,
music-video-style segments incorporating music by Tina Turner, Glenn
Frey, Suicidal Tendencies, and many others. This led some critics
to nickname the show, "MTV cops."
Street Blues and Miami Vice paved the way for further
experimentation with the genre. Stephen Bochco, the producer of
Hill Street Blues, began the 1990s with Cop Rock--a bold,
but ultimately failed, effort to blend the police program with the
musical. Unlike Miami Vice's musical segments which drew
upon music video, Cop Rock's episodes more resembled West Side
Story or an operetta--as police officers, criminals, and attorneys
sang about life on the streets. It only lasted three months, but
it stands as one of the most unconventional programs within the
fared better in more familiar surroundings when he developed
NYPD Blue, a program about homicide detectives that resembled
Hill Street Blues in its serialized, unstable narrative development
and cinema verite, visual style. Although the program raised some
controversy in its use of partial nudity and more flavorful language
than was common on television at the time, it actually broke little
new ground as far as the genre's conventions were considered. More
unconventional in its narrative structure was Law & Order,
in which the program was strictly divided between the first and
second halves. In the former, the police investigated a crime and
in the latter, the district attorney's office prosecuted that crime.
Like NYPD Blue, Law & Order was set in New York City and
it presented its urban environment through conventions of "realism"
that evolved from Hill Street Blues.
legacy of Miami Vice's visual stylization was most apparent
in Homicide: Life on the Streets, which may well be the most
stylized police drama of the 1990s. Homicide broke many of
television's most sacred rules of editing and narrative continuity.
Jump cuts were numerous as the program came to resemble a French
New Wave film from the 1960s. Wild camera movements and unpredictable
shifts in narrative development marked it as one of the most unconventional
programs in the genre.
other recent, anomalous police program was Picket Fences.
Although many of the central characters were police officers (thus
possibly qualifying it for the genre), Picket Fences did
not adhere to the central police program convention of an urban
environment. Instead, the program was set in a small town, which
consequently defused many of the pressures of city life. Moreover,
Picket Fences dealt with many topics previously unknown to
the genre (such as spontaneous combustion of a human being). It
seems unlikely, however, that this program will have much impact
on the genre.
liable to influence the genre was the documentary program, COPS,
produced by John Langley. COPS presented hand-held, videotape
footage of actual police officers apprehending criminal perpetrators.
There was no host introducing this footage and the only explanation
of what was happening was provided by the participants themselves
(principally, the police men and women). In a sense, COPS
was merely the logical extension of Hill Street Blues' shooting
style and disjointed narratives--and was much cheaper to produce.
Albert. "Did They Ever Catch the Criminals Who Committed the Armed
Robbery On People's Drive: Hill Street Blues Remembered." Television
Quarterly (New York), Summer 1988.
Steven. Interview. American Film (Los Angeles, California),
Jeremy G. "Miami Vice: The Legacy of Film Noir." Journal of Popular
Film and Television (Washington, D.C.) Fall 1985.
Mark. "Bochco's Law." Rolling Stone (New York), 21 April
Collins, Max Allen. The Best of Crime & Detective TV: Perry Mason
to Hill Street Blues, The Rockford Files to Murder She Wrote. New
York: Harmony Books, 1989.
B. Keith. " Acting Like Cops: The Social Reality of Crime and Law
on TV Police Dramas." In Sanders, Clinton R., editor. Marginal
Conventions: Popular Culture, Mass Media and Social Deviance. Bowling
Green, Ohio: Popular Culture Press, 1990.
Julie. Defining Women: Television and the Case of Cagney & Lacey.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press,
Susan. "Signs of Intelligent Life on TV." Ms. Magazine (New
York), May-June 1995.
John, and John Hartley. "A Policeman's Lot." In Reading Television.
New York: Methuen, 1978.
Judith. "Prime Time Crime: Television Portrayals of Law Enforcement,"
Journal of American Culture (Bowling Green, Ohio), Spring
Geoffrey. "The Television Presentation of the Police." In, Bennett,
Tony, Susan Boyd-Bowman, Colin Mercer, Janet Woollacott, editors.
Popular Television and Film. London: British Film Institute,
Inciardi, James A., and Juliet L. Dee. "From the Keystone Cops to
Miami Vice: Images of Policing in American Popular Culture." Journal
of Popular Culture (Bowling Green, Ohio), Fall 1987.
Stuart, and Jeffrey H. Mahan. American Television Genres.
Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1985.
John J. "When Fiction is More Real Than 'Reality.'" New York
Times, 7 February 1993.
Bruce. "New York City Police: TV's Archetypes of Toughness." The
New York Times, 28 October 1994.
Zynda, Thomas H. "The Metaphoric Vision of Hill Street Blues." Journal
of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), Fall 1986.
and Lacey; Columbo;
Dock Green; Dragnet;
Plante, Lynda; Miami
Mystery Movie; NYPD
Blue; Police Story;
Prime Suspect; Starsky
and Hutch; Sweeny,
Jack; Z Cars